Enough to Make You Spit

A common cold or the flu can spell disaster for a professional singer

Generally speaking, as a performer, even more as a classical singer, it is bad form to reply to criticism. The very personal nature of stage performance – the presentation of some version of the self, however well-hidden or transformed – elicits a sort of visceral response from the critic. Trying to excuse one’s perceived inadequacies or point out something crucial that has been missed or misunderstood seems rather beside the point and even impertinent. All performers, unless they live in a Xanadu world of Citizen Kane-like reclusiveness, will sometimes (or frequently) read reviews. But on the whole, we pretend that we don’t for the sake of our dignity. We also insist that the ultimately unmediated encounter with the audience is paramount.

With the written word it’s a different matter, and having had an unusually large response on the Standpoint website to my last column, I thought I might clarify it just a little. I imagine that the interest was partly because the subject, our experience of time, is such a fascinating one, and one about which we all have something to say; but also because it is an area in which debate is intense among professional philosophers, often partisan and bewilderingly inconclusive. I was surprised, maybe even flattered, to have my scattered remarks analysed as philosophy.

Having been brought up close to the analytical tradition – two close schoolfriends have become philosophers, one working in the philosophy of science, the other in metaethics – sceptical of the metaphysicians, wary of the transcendental, I don’t really believe that music does the work of metaphysics in any rationally engageable way. It is rather that in gesturing towards the unsayable – incoherent efforts as far as the analytical philosopher is concerned – music seems to me to do a more convincing job than the mystagogues of Paris and Frankfurt. What we cannot speak about, as Wittgenstein realised in his late philosophy, we do not pass over in silence, but endlessly mull over in art, religious doctrine and, perhaps above all, music. What is extraordinary is the continuing pertinence of the Romantic era’s vision of musical transcendence to our own age. “Music,” as Beethoven had it, “is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.” True or not, we are still in thrall to such aspirations.

This month, I’ve been feeling distinctly corporeal. When all is well, singing is the sort of physical activity that brings with it a sense of release, of freedom and even exaltation. When all is not well (quite frequently), one feels the rustiness of the mechanism, its unwillingness to respond. Coax it like some temperamental engine and eventually it will respond. But when it comes to rather routine illnesses – in this case flu but more often a cold – things can seize up rather disconcertingly, a reminder of the brute materiality of what can seem a rather refined exercise.

To move from metaphysics to melancholia, as a singer it’s not difficult to appreciate the relevance to daily and seasonal life of some skewed version of the old Galenic humoral theory, with its choleric, melancholic, sanguine and phlegmatic temperaments. My life is governed by phlegm to an extent which utterly disgusts my friends and family – even eight years of child-rearing have not desensitised my wife to this aspect of the human condition, and her opinion on the colour of the day’s sputum is not usually canvassable.

The singer’s slavery to even the most common of human ailments is difficult for the outsider to appreciate, so much so that when a singer has to cancel on account of the rhinovirus or one of its allies, the affliction being suffered is almost always beefed up to something more impressive sounding. During the winter months, every day is spent anxiously reading the phlegmatic runes – steaming to ward off a viral threat, anxiously trying the voice out in the morning, trying to work out if that dry lack of suppleness is infective or due to over-enthusiastic central heating. Having an upper respiratory tract infection – and we singers feel every nook and cranny of the upper respiratory tract, from its top to its bottom, obsessively tracing the progress of the most subjective sensations of infection – is for a singer the equivalent of pulling a muscle or a tendon for an athlete.

It makes us, despite the extrovert image of the opera singer, a very inward-looking breed, literally, obsessed with the health of tiny pieces of mucous membrane (the vocal cords) in the cartilaginous larynx, and of its surrounding tissue, all of it inside, and accessible only by the larynyscope (invented by a singer). Obsessive too. I shall never forget my wife returning home one afternoon to find me hunched over the computer transfixed by what looked at first glance to be a rather unappetising pornographic website. In fact, battling my first bout of true laryngitis, the ultimate voice-killer, I was scanning endless close-ups of infected vocal tracts, trying to get a grip on my condition. So I was prepared for the singer’s experience of the coughs and sore throats that go with the flu. It is the irrational feeling that, however many times you’ve been through it before, this is the end. What I had forgotten was the overwhelming viral depression, which makes you wonder if you could be bothered even if the wretched voice did come back.

It is difficult to see the melancholy fit, when it is actually upon one, as creative; it saps action. Look at Dürer’s female figure of melancholy, dark-faced, slumped, surrounded by all the instruments of creativity but unable to use them. Yet from the 17th century on, melancholy and creative frenzy were seen as intimately connected, part of the cultural construction that became the still reigning notion of the artistic genius, Beethoven its prime exemplar, brooding and also, interestingly, dark- faced – a sufferer from the black bile, perhaps. Music retains a two-sided relationship to melancholia, both a curative, as David soothed Saul, and a quintessence, a sort of licensed wallowing. Or is it just playing at melancholy, perhaps, a steeling oneself for its unpredictable, material descent? The Jacobean Robert Burton is the anatomist of all this, from the music that “rears and revives the languishing soul”, that which “makes melancholy persons mad…the sound of those jigs and hornpipes…not [to] be removed out of the ears for a week after”, to the music which causes a “pleasing melancholy…[which] expels cares, alters…grieved minds, and easeth in an instant”.

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